In sporting clay shooting, the mental game manifests itself in trust, patience, confidence, emotional control, focus, and consistency. Sure, it does also have to do with a 12 Gauge Shotgun and a clay target too. You might be starting off with Trap shooting with some sporting clay courses, and if you are ready to elevate your game to Skeet shooting or Sporting clays your mental game will be crucial to be mastered.
In shooting, trusting yourself is trusting your subconscious. As the instinctual side of our brain is rarely exercised day-to-day, trusting oneself is often difficult and uncomfortable for new shooters. When a masterclass instructor advises you to shoot ‘carefree’, they typically mean to rely on your subconscious rather than overthinking. Let me explain why this is required of shooters.
In most other sports, successful athletes learn a new skill by being taught a move, repeating it many times, and hopefully ingraining it into their muscle memory. The newly discovered skill becomes a reaction rather than a decision. This training style works for most sports because a precise formula of actions is usually needed to achieve a specific goal or play. For example, a professional soccer player is considered elite primarily because of the arsenal of athletic moves and strategies they possess for getting past defenders. Thanks to muscle memory and honed instincts, an experienced soccer player applies the relevant skill for a specific situation in a split second.
Adapting the same skill development process and applying it to shooting is often key to success. The only learned skills to be repeated are before the breakpoint. Although there are many methods of approaching the bird – swing through, sustained lead, diminishing lead, and so on – these moves do not equate to hitting the clay. Beginners might think the way to shoot successfully lies in complex calculations of spatial awareness and lead time. However, practicing these methods puts your subconscious mind in the position to do the work for you. That is what separates shooting from all other sports. The best shooters are not concerned with repeating the exact same barrel movement between the first and the third pair; their goal is to repeat the same move towards the bird because it gives their subconscious the best chance of analyzing and moving their hands in the correct position, which changes with every pair due to changing focus, visibility, wind, etc. To try harder is to trust that you will never be more knowledgeable than the tool that is your subconscious mind.
Focusing on the bird allows your subconscious awareness of the barrel to move your hips, shoulders, hands and barrel exactly where it needs to be in front of the bird. Although uncomfortable at first, sustained practice will allow you to test your instincts and eventually learn to trust them. I believe this is the first and most important discipline for a shooter to learn. Do not be fooled to think that your conscious analysis, timing, and lead will ever outperform your subconscious instincts on when and where to take the shot. Although you cannot command your instincts to repeat themselves, time and practice will prove that relying on instinct yields better results than over-analysis.
Patience is another practice that aids in learning to trust your subconscious - practicing patience when shooting is crucial because it makes the shooter consistent, smooth, and quick. Hold point and break point placement are my metrics for patience because they reflect the shooter’s mental strength. Those two points (hold and break) should never be too far apart (let’s say the distance between should be no more than 10% to 50% of the flight path, depending on the two extremes of slow and fast targets, with the average being no more than 20% of the clay’s flight) or else too many thoughts start to creep into your head. The impatient shooter has a tendency to “ride” the bird, which suggests that they are focused hard on the bird for far too much time before the clay approaches the breakpoint, and they follow it for the majority of its flight. Why is more time on the clay a bad thing? How is that not a patient shooter? After explaining what the hold-point and break-point relationship should look like, I will answer these questions.
One of the best ways to minimize errors is by reducing your movement. Cut out the muzzle flip and the out-of-control movements. It takes much more skill and effort to develop a consistent shooting style with so many moving parts. To reduce the movement and thus, the error, shorten your time on the target. Establish your breakpoint, and don’t move your hold point too far back from there. Determine when you want to make your move and adjust your hold point according to your shooting style. If you shoot swing through, adjust your hold point to where you want to start your committed move. If you shoot diminishing lead, adjust your hold point as close as you comfortably can to the breakpoint. If you shoot sustained lead, adjust your hold point to somewhere between where the two points previously described would have been. A hold point too far back indicates an impatient shooter who wants more time to think about the lead rather than react to the bird.
Hold fast, and do not backtrack your hold point once the clay has been launched. This tendency is especially apparent when reviewing ShotKam videos because your gun follows your shoulder, your shoulders follow your head, and your head points to your focus. Many shooters call “pull” and move their gun in the negative direction from the hold point, so then they are left to play catch-up with more movement than was needed. The more time you spend focused on the bird, the more gun movement and over-analyzing thoughts will follow. For instance, when you approach a “big bird” station, do not be concerned with what the bird is doing when it is launched from 120 yards away. It takes one glance for you to know exactly where that target will be in 5 seconds. This style of clay is a common mind trick set by trappers. They want you to watch the bird for a long time, and experience tells us that when you can watch a clay for a long time, it is usually a slower one requiring less lead, which is not always true. You need the patience to focus on the bird only when you are ready to shoot, and your subconscious can analyze the required lead without your conscious brain saying, “I think this needs less lead than I would have given it.”
Your instinct works far better than anything you can learn yourself. A patient shooter waits for the right time to focus on the bird, reduces barrel movement, and trusts their subconscious to get the job done.
Here is a helpful YouTube video which shows leading targets at different distances: